15 October 2020

Not a "Nobody" (+ Phantoms Cookie Recipe)

This post will probably be the most vulnerable I have ever allowed myself to be in public, so if you are only here for the recipe, I'm putting it right up top for you.

This is a fun, fall recipe, inspired by my love of the Netflix original show, Julie and the Phantoms. After you bake the cookies, you won't be able to see the mini marshmallow "ghosts," but even though these ghosts have no bodies, like the three musical spirits from the show, their essences won't disappear!


Three ghosts hover over bold purple lettering that says: Julie and the Phantoms. One ghost is eating a cookie.

Maple Phantom Cookies
bottle of maple syrup with ghosts on the label, and a plate of cookies in front of it.

2 c. maple syrup (reduced to 1 1/2 c.)
2 c. butter
1/2 c. cornstarch
3 eggs
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
5 c. gluten-free all-purpose flour
mini marshmallows (aka "ghosts")

Pour 2 c. maple syrup into a 2qt. glass measuring bowl. Heat on high in the microwave to reduce the liquid. The timing will vary based on your microwave. Start with 3 minutes, but don't take your eyes off it for a second! Stop & stir every time it starts to bubble up, so it won't boil over! Once the syrup starts boiling, you will have to stop it more and more frequently to stir down the bubbles, until it starts to thicken. (Once some of the liquid has boiled off, it will bubble up less.) -- Keep heating on high, 30 seconds at a time, until the syrup has reduced to 1 1/2 c. (You can also reduce the syrup by heating on the stove, stirring constantly so it won't burn or boil over.)

hollow maple cookies on a black plate
Stir in cold butter, until it's thoroughly combined. Chill 2-4 hours, until butter/syrup is slightly solidified, but not hard. 

Transfer to large mixing bowl and beat in cornstarch, eggs, soda, and salt. Stir in flour. Then cover and chill overnight. 

Scoop dough into 1/2-inch balls. Flatten each ball into a disc and place a mini marshmallow in the center. Fold the edges up around the marshmallow and pinch together to seal. Roll slightly in your hands to even out the dough, then place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. 

Bake at 375F for 8-9 minutes, until slightly browned on the bottom. Cool for a few minutes on the tray, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

Jeremy Shada sitting with a bass guitar, and captions that say: We're nobody. Less than nobody. We have no bodies.

Usually, my crazy cookie challenges come from friends or family members trying to stump me with wacky ingredients. (Capers, feta, & celery? Spinach & zucchini? Olive oil & rosemary? Who knew that would make such a great cookie?) 

But this recipe is all me. 

Mostly. 

As inspired by Julie and the Phantoms.

The recipe, like the show, is fun and sweet and full of things to make me smile. Which is exactly what I need in my life right now. And for those of you who just came for the recipe, there it is. I hope you enjoy it! 

For those of you who came for the life story you know I always include when I share recipes here ... I'm going to try to explain why Julie and the Phantoms means so much to me. Why I have watched every single episode at least 15 times through (and many of the scenes within the episodes hundreds of times) even though the show has only been out for a month. And why (at least for now), this obsession is exactly what I need.

But before you read further, I feel like I should issue a content warning for depression, anxiety, sexual harassment, and suicide. As much as I try to live in a world full of rainbows and bubbles, the real world just isn't always like that. And this post will be one of those not-quite-like-that moments. If you want to read on, but you aren't in the right headspace to handle these topics right now, feel free to skip down to the "Julie and the Phantoms" header way down there--where I talk about the hope and joy and inspiration I am finding in this show.

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If you're still here, still reading ... 

Umm... 

Hi. 

This might be the hardest thing I've ever written, but I feel like it's time. Maybe someone out there needs to hear this. Maybe I just need to say it, so it's not echoing through my brain alone anymore. Either way, I'm probably going to ramble. A lot. Because I'm pretty sure I'll lose my courage and cancel this entire post if I try to edit and polish it up very much. I apologize in advance.

Julie and the Phantoms gif of Alex (Owen Joyner) telling Willy (Booboo Stewart): I've always been a little anxious...

Confession: I have been thinking of writing this blog post every day for the past two weeks, and Monday night (10/12), I promised myself that, since after two weeks of not writing it, I still felt compelled to do so, I was going to force myself to sit down and write the thing and do nothing else (not even going to bed) until it was done. I sat down at my computer around 5pm that night... By 8:01am on Tuesday morning (10/13), I had made it this far. (I did take a small break for dinner Monday night, and a slightly longer, unintentional break when I fell asleep in my chair for a few hours during the night.)  It's not that I don't know what to say ... it's that I kind of know exactly what I want to say, but I don't want to overwhelm anyone, and I don't quite know how much is "too much."

Story Time:

This is going to be long. I'm sorry about that. But honestly, I can't figure out how to say what I need to say without going through the whole story and being actually honest about everything. (And I know I have hinted at a lot of this stuff before, so those of you who have been reading along for years probably have figured out a lot of this ... but there are parts I've never admitted out loud before, and right now, it just feels important to be more transparent.) 

But first one more disclaimer: 

I'm not writing this to beg for attention or to paint myself as having a more difficult time of it than anyone else. In fact, I know that there are a lot of people who struggle so much more than I do. I promise I'm not trying to play the hardship Olympics here. I simply can't pretend to be okay anymore, and it has to come out somewhere.

Okay, for real this time...

I have struggled with depression and anxiety my entire life, at least as far back as I can remember. When I was a child, it confused me to no end that I could sit in my room on a perfectly lovely day and just cry. Especially when I couldn't actually point to a single reason for being sad and I could, in fact, point to lots and lots of reasons for being happy. Being sad, or crying when I didn't have a reason to be sad didn't make sense to me. 

Julie and the Phantoms: Reggie, Alex, and Luke with the caption [Alex]: I have been crying for 25 years?

I knew I was broken. 

And I was positive that no one would want me if they knew I was broken. 

Especially when they all had things of their own to worry about. 

Especially after I once heard my mom tell one of her friends "I never have to worry about Veronica." (To this day, I have no idea what the context of this statement was. And it was such an off-hand remark that I am certain my mom doesn't even remember even saying it. It's quite likely that she was talking about a certain situation where she could count on me... like "I trust that Veronica won't go jump into the community pool without a lifeguard on duty," but to my little 6-year-old mind, it meant "You cannot ever make a single mistake, or your mother will not love you anymore!")

So I learned to play the part I knew I was supposed to play. 

My mom tells a cute, little story about how, when my preschool teacher would set out stacks of coloring pages for us to choose from, I felt compelled to color one of each different option. I still remember the absolute panic I felt the day she set out twenty different types of coloring pages (all of the leftovers from previous coloring times). There was so much to do, and so little time to finish! But I had to finish. I skipped nap time and snack time. I sat at the table all by myself while the other kids were playing with toys for free time, and I still had to rush so much that I got some of the coloring outside the lines. 

But I managed to color all twenty of those pages before my mom came to pick me up from school. And luckily, she was in a hurry, and didn't look closely enough to see that I had strayed outside the lines on several of the pages. Because I had to be perfect. 

Always. 

For all people. 

In all situations. 

Even when it was just coloring pages in preschool.

I became the person everyone else could lean on for support, no matter what, in all circumstances. Even if I didn't know how to hold my own self up. And above all else, I knew that I could not be a burden.

Julie and the Phantoms screenshot. Reggie, Alex, and Luke, with Alex saying: I cried in a room for 25 years, and I didn't get a single hug from either one of you.

But everyone has a different definition of "perfect," and it's really hard to be the perfect person for everyone else. The perfect sidekick, who would smile and nod and help my best friend get the guy I had a crush on to ask her to the school formal. The perfect sibling, who would help my sister sneak out to see her boyfriend, while simultaneously being the perfect daughter, who would never tell a lie to my parents or break the rules. The perfect student, who not only got perfect grades, but always said yes when the teacher asked her to help the boy who was struggling in class. And who never complained, even when that boy spent the entire class period, instead of studying the material I was supposed to help him understand, describing in graphic detail the way he imagined my naked body. 

The only thing I "knew" with absolute certainty (whether it was true or not) was that no one wanted anything to do with the real, imperfect me. And so I learned to be as perfect as I could be for as many people as I could. 
Except when I was all alone in my own room. Only then could I let myself cry.

This isn't to say that everything in my life is doom and gloom. I promise, I haven't been secretly wallowing 24 hours a day for the past (more than) 25 years. 

I grew up.

I survived high school.

I went to college and made some friends.

I met a boy, who turned out to be the love of my life.

We got married almost 25 years ago, and he has helped me to see that it's okay to be me. 

Even if I'm not always the perfect wife / mother / daughter / sister / sidekick / friend.

Even if I'm still sad sometimes, when I have every reason to be happy.

Even if life is still sometimes depressing and real.

Even if I am still broken.

The thing is, depression is real, but it doesn't always consume my life. Most days, even in the sad times, I am really good at looking for the rainbows and bubbles. 

I used to carry a small bottle of bubble solution in my pocket at all times, so I could blow bubbles while I walked down the street. To remind myself to find simple reasons to smile, even on sad days. (I still have a bottle of bubble solution in my closet, for when it's safe to be out in public regularly again...) 

I am an incurable optimist, and I refuse to let depression & anxiety win!

And yet...

I have been STRUGGLING in recent years, for a lot of reasons (which you probably already know if you've been a regular reader on my blog, and which you can go back to read up on if you're new here, so I won't take up time here rehashing all the details). The important thing to know for this story--the thing I have never admitted to anyone until this week--is that last year, I nearly gave in to the demons telling me that the world would be better off without one of me in it.

I was really good at keeping up the act, but I couldn't see the rainbows and bubbles anymore.

More than anything in the world, I wanted to write again. I have stories--joyful stories--bubbling up in my brain, pushing to make their way into the world. But I couldn't write. I would pick up my story pencils and just sob for hours over a blank page, not writing a single word. I would open up a completed draft of a manuscript on my computer, and my eyes would fill with tears until I couldn't even see the words I was trying to revise. I wanted to write. I needed to write. I had words and stories right there ... but I couldn't get to them. I even had fully-finished, revised-and-polished stories on my hard drive ... but I couldn't bring myself to share them.

Because what if those nasty whispers of doubt inside my head that told me I'm more trouble than I'm worth were really true? What if the people I know and love really are just counting the days until I'm gone so they could celebrate the burden being lifted from their lives? What if putting more of my words, my self into the world just added to the burden of my existence? Do I even deserve to be heard?

I made a daily, conscious effort to fight against those voices. Because of course the people I love don't think I'm a burden on society. I may have a brain tumor. I may get sick easily, and I may not be able to do all the things I used to be able to do for people, but surely the people who loved me understood that, right? They weren't secretly sitting back and watching and waiting for the day when they could finally be rid of me. That was just my stupid anxiety brain talking. I didn't need to be afraid to write!

... But I have been sick a lot lately. Unable to do some of the things I used to take for granted, without putting in a lot of effort. What if I started something, and then my stupid brain tumor finally won the battle? Then, I would leave behind yet another half-finished project that my family would have to deal with or make sense of after I died. I was already a burden (stop it, Veronica--quit telling yourself you are a burden--no one thinks that--do they?). I couldn't write new words if I couldn't guarantee that I would have a chance to do something with them.

And the more I tried to write, the more I fought to let these lovely, hopeful, bubbly, sparkly words flow out of me, the more I spiraled into a darker and darker place. 

I let myself fantasize about letting go. ... Not that I was really thinking of killing myself. (Right? No. Of course not. Never.) The perfect wife / mother / daughter / sister / sidekick / friend would never really do something like that. I couldn't kill myself.

But what if it was an accident? ... If I had a headache and took too many pain pills and then maybe accidentally ate or drank something that would cause an adverse reaction ... Or if it was raining and I was driving on a winding road and accidentally took a turn just a little bit too fast ... Or if I was at the top of a very tall stairwell and accidentally leaned over just a little bit too far to look at something on the floor below ... Even a perfect wife / mother / daughter / sister / sidekick / friend might make a tragic mistake sometime. I couldn't be blamed for that, right?

Only, I had so many people relying on me for so many things. I realized that I couldn't be done until I checked some things off my to do list. Until I put up alternate support systems for the people I loved, so I wouldn't leave them floundering to get by without me. 
Julie and the Phantoms gif -- Reggie says: But we're not alone, cause we always have each other. -- while Charlie hugs him.

And then the pandemic hit.

And suddenly, people I thought I knew and trusted were loudly proclaiming that people with weakened immune systems (like me -- thanks a lot, stupid brain tumor) were acceptable casualties, if there was a choice between keeping them safe and protecting the economy as we know it. Declaring masks an oppression. Insisting that people who might get sick more easily should just quarantine themselves and stop selfishly imposing their needs on the rest of the world. 

And I realized that, those nasty, awful voices inside my head that told me my friends and family were just waiting for me to get a clue and kick off already... Those voices were right. That horrible little fear that people who should care about me really just couldn't wait until I was gone? It wasn't just a random fear. It was real. (Not everyone, of course. My sweet love-of-my-life has been so supportive and uplifting. He's not giving up on me.) 

But enough people felt that way to make it really hard to ignore the voices.

And I just couldn't do it anymore.

I pulled out my to-do list. I started really looking closely at all of the projects I had going, all of the ways that people were relying on me. If I could get enough things checked off the list so that people wouldn't miss what I was doing for them, I could die and the world would be better off. I analyzed and organized and slowly started knocking things off the list or delegating them to others. 

I pushed all of my own writing, anything with my own voice, so far to the back burner that it fell behind the stove and sat there quietly posing a fire hazard. But that didn't matter, because I wasn't going to be here to worry about it anymore.

I was actively making plans. Daily analyzing the mental health of everyone I was close to. ("Are they strong enough yet to stand on their own without me?" "How soon will they be ready to say goodbye?") And I slowly started pulling back from everything that I could distance myself from.

I still didn't necessarily want to die. But the idea of not living anymore was so freeing. (Yes, I realize that distinction might sound odd to some of you, but it's also 100% accurate to the thought process I battle with regularly.) I was literally living each day in hopes that it might be my last. Maybe I would even catch COVID19 and become one of those "acceptable casualties" that everyone was talking about. Or maybe I should stop being so careful about where / when I fall asleep, because if one of the random times when my brain tumor causes me to literally forget how to breathe happens while I'm sleeping (something I have struggled with since my brain surgery in 2006--one of the reasons I don't often allow myself to sleep for long stretches of time unless there is someone else who is awake and checking on me periodically) If I stopped being so careful and just let it happen... maybe I just wouldn't have to wake up tomorrow morning. Then, I wouldn't have to do it myself.  

I pulled away from the friends and family members who I knew were struggling just as much as me. I stopped commenting on their social media posts to remind them that I love them and that I hoped they would keep fighting for one more day. Because how hypocritical would that be? I couldn't honestly tell them that life was worth fighting for when I had decided I was done fighting myself. 

I also actively distanced myself from all of the friends & family members who made me feel like I was selfish for not pulling the trigger immediately, because I wanted to do it carefully, deliberately, and in just the right way. I wasn't going to let them make me feel guilty for living one more day (or week)... but I had decided to let them win. Because it had become so difficult to keep fighting that this felt like a win for me too.

Then, on September 12, 2020, I got a call from my mom.

Beautiful girl smiling at the camera
My niece had died. Suicide.

And of course, my first thought was crushing, overwhelming grief at the loss. Because she was such a beautiful person, inside and out. The world is measurably darker without her sweet smile.

And I knew I should feel guilty about the fact that I had totally ghosted on her for the past six months, even though I knew she was struggling. I should feel guilty about not reminding her that she had so much to live for, and that she was loved more than she let herself believe. I should feel guilty for contributing to the fact that she felt so alone, she couldn't see any other options.

Instead, I just felt jealous.

She got there first.

She got to say goodbye.

She got to be done.

And now I had to figure out a whole new timeline, because I couldn't make my family deal with two suicides at the same time (how do you Google "appropriate wait time between suicide attempts?") and I wasn't going to force my family to split their grief between my sweet, amazing niece and me. Because she deserved better than to have me steal any part of the thoughts that should be focused on her (and also? if I'm being completely honest... I'm 98% sure that most of the people who were grieving her death would be more irritated at me for stealing her spotlight than missing me at all)

4 screenshots of marked-up scripture pages, with a caption on top that says: I’ve set a goal for myself to finish reading the Book of Mormon again by the end of the year. I started with a brand-new copy, and I have been marking & annotating it as I go. It’s amazing how many things stick out for me that I never noticed in my previous readings. (These passages particularly felt relevant in light of the current state of our world.) When I am finished reading/marking it, I will give this copy of the Book of Mormon away. Who wants it? If you want to know more about my faith, and why I believe, let me know. #BookOfMormon #LightTheWorld #ScripturePower #MyTestimony ... and a comment below that says: I'm not a very religious person as you may know by now. But, I would love to learn more about your faith. To have a book with so much put into it by you, would mean a lot. Message me Auntie, maybe I can talk you into giving it to me.

I couldn't even find comfort in reading my scriptures, which has always been the one thing I could count on to pull me through when everything else crumbled. But every time I opened them to start reading, I thought of this Facebook exchange from a couple of years ago, when she asked if she could have my marked-up scriptures. 

Now, every passage I marked brought the grief squeezing in ever tighter.

This is where I was one month ago: September 14, 2020. 

I was doing my best to be strong for my children, who were dealing with the loss of someone they were very close to for the first time ever. I was wishing I could be there for my sister, who shouldn't have had to say goodbye to her child so soon. I was trying my best to be the pillar for anyone who needed to lean on me. So I couldn't allow myself to cry or break down ... But this night, I was home alone, because my daughter who still lives at home was working, and my husband went to pick her up.

I opened up Netflix to look for the show that my "extra daughter" (aka my older daughters' roommate) had recommended the week before. Maybe it would help numb my brain and let me escape my feelings for a few minutes. 

But I couldn't remember what it was called.**

And I didn't have the energy to ask.

So I just started scrolling through the Netflix recommendations, just in case I recognized a title. 

Except, I didn't even have the energy to keep pushing the little arrow button on the remote to scroll to the next show. I just dropped the remote in my lap and let my brain shut down.

And Netflix started auto-playing the show I accidentally landed on.

Julie and the Phantoms

Julie and the Phantoms gif -- Julie plays the keyboard, while Flynn watches. Suddenly, Charlie, Alex, and Reggie poof into view with their instruments and join the song.

**This was not, in fact, the show I had turned on Netflix to find. That show was actually Sweet Magnolias, which I still haven't actually watched, but I just learned that one of the actors on that show is the twin brother of Carolynn Shada, an amazingly talented dancer who happens to be the wife of Jeremy Shada, who plays the loveable Reggie in Julie and the Phantoms.

The shows opening performance of the song "Now or Never" by the fictional '90s boy band, Sunset Curve was a bop my teen self would have loved back in 1995. And it hit in an uplifting / inspiring way, with lyrics like "Keep dreaming like we'll live forever, But live it like it's now or never!" And the vibe / voice of the whole scene felt just like the feeling bubbling through my veins whenever I think about the young adult novel I've been trying to finish a final revision on for months. 

It was like cotton candy for the soul. 

Sweet and light and completely addictive from the very first bite.

I stayed up until well past midnight, binge-watching the entire first season (only 9 episodes?? I need so much more than that!), and honestly, if only for the "cotton candy for the soul" factor, this was time well-spent. But as I continued watching, I realized this show has so much more than just the sweet fluff of cotton candy going for it. (Lots of spoilers ahead, because there's no way to explain what this show means to me without going into a lot of detail ... so if you care about that sort of thing, and you haven't yet seen the show, go watch it now. I promise it's worth your time. I'll wait.)

When Julie sits at the piano for the first time in episode one... I felt that emotion deep in my soul. She has so much music locked up inside of her. She can feel it with every breath. She wants to play, to let it out. And yet ... the grief is so strong, so palpable, so overwhelming that it's literally too painful. She can't. And it's killing her.

This is how I have felt about my writing. 

I want to write. 

I can feel the stories bubbling up inside of me. I can hear their voices. I can almost touch them. But when I pick up my story pencils to write something new, or open a document with an existing manuscript to revise on my computer, it hurts. The pain is so overwhelming that I literally can't do it. It's not that I don't want to. It's not that I don't know what to write. It's not that I'm suffering from "writer's block." I just. Can't. Write.

And watching Julie flicker through those exact emotions with her music in that fleeting moment onscreen? This cotton-candy show suddenly became so much more. 

It started out as merely enjoyable, then quickly became relatable.

This is when I knew I was going to keep watching. This was a moment I could point to and tell people "that is how I feel." And it might seem silly, but in that moment, I felt a little bit less alone.

And when, in the end of episode one, Julie plays "Wake Up," I literally sat up. 

Here's the one thing
I want you to know
You got someplace to go.
Life's a test, yes,
But you go toe to toe.
You don't give up, no, you grow.
And you use your pain
'Cause it makes you you
Though I wish I could hold you through it.
I know it's not the same,
You've got livin' to do,
And I just want you to do it.
So get up, get out, relight that spark.
You know the rest by heart.
 

And suddenly, it wasn't just relatable, it was aspirational.

I wanted to reach that point, when the light flows in and the music of my soul can flow again. And for the first time in a very long time, I felt just a twinkle of hope that maybe I could get there, if I didn't give up. Maybe I still had some livin' to do.

And I could almost feel my sweet niece sitting next to me on the couch, leaning her head on my shoulder the way she used to do when we would have a serious conversation, and smiling that sweet smile of hers. "Pay attention, Aunt Veronica. You've got this."

The next day, I watched the entire show again. And when I got to the end of the last episode, I wanted to immediately start over for a third time. (Come on, Veronica. You're getting a little bit obsessed, aren't you? That can't be healthy.) I couldn't justify continuing to sit in front of the TV, so I went looking for the music. Those songs were so amazing, surely they would have put out a soundtrack, right?

Yes!!

I added it to my Amazon playlist, bought a copy on iTunes, and even re-downloaded the Spotify app, so I could add it there too. I set the album to an endless loop and kept it playing non-stop during every waking moment for the next week, until the lyrics were so firmly embedded in my mind that I heard them even when the music wasn't playing out loud.

And the more I listened, the more the messages of those songs resonated with me.

It had moved from aspirational to inspirational.

Woven throughout every single song on this soundtrack was a message of hope and encouragement. 

"Don't look down, 'cause we're still rising up right now..."

"It's not what you lost. It's what you'll gain, raising your voice to the rain..."

"...gotta get ready, 'Cause it's been years!"

"Make 'em say wow!"

"Fight through the dark, and find the spark..."

"If somebody hurts you, I'm gonna get hurt too. That's just how we work..."

"Can't stop the music back inside my soul, and it's stronger than before..."

"Life is good..."

"Ain't perfect, but I can't miss..."

"We know we can make it. We're not falling down under..."

"We come to life when we're in perfect harmony."

"We're standing on the edge of great..."

"Maybe time would not erase me..."

"Life's short, not a minute to waste..."

"Whatever happens, even if I'm the last standing, I'ma stand tall..."

By this time, I had watched through all the episodes so many times I had lost count. I knew the soundtrack by heart. I even found a YouTube video with all of the songs from the show, so I could watch the soundtrack, when just listening wasn't enough, but I didn't have time to watch the full episodes. 

And the more I listened, the more I started internalizing these messages. I wanted to pick up my story pencils and write something new, so that I could proclaim "This [author] is back!" I wanted to share the stories I've finished and shelved, and maybe even "make 'em say wow!" 

And more than a few times, I caught myself bopping along to the music inside my head that told me "Life is good!"

I could see the rainbows and bubbles again. 

And slowly, as I continued to immerse myself in this world where hope was a tangible thing, I could see a glimmer of me fighting through the darkness again. I wanted to believe that it was possible to have that kind of joy. 

That's when it moved from inspirational to motivational.

I discovered bits of encouragement to carry in my heart from some of my favorite scenes between the songs in each episode. And by the end of the second week, I could open Netflix and immediately cue up whatever scene I needed from any episode.

If the demon voices in my head tried to tell me I wasn't anything special, I could watch the clip from episode one, where Reggie stops Alex from disparaging his talent. "Could you just own your awesomeness for once?"

Julie and the Phantoms gif -- Reggie tells Alex: Could you just own your awesomeness for once?

If those voices tried to tell me that the timing wasn't right, that I needed to wait until x, y, and z were taken care of before I could justify taking time to work on anything of my own, I could watch the clip from episode 2, where Luke encourages Julie to go for it. "Learn from me. Your tainted hotdog could be right around the corner."

Julie and the Phantoms gif - Luke tells Julie: Learn from me. Your tainted hotdog could be right around the corner.

And I can't pinpoint the exact moment it happened, but slowly, gradually, my thought process shifted. 

I stopped looking at my to-do list as a bucket list to accomplish before I could have permission to say goodbye. Instead, I wanted to clear space in my brain so that I could reclaim those parts of me I had pushed off the back burner.

I pulled out my neglected journal that I hadn't written in for months, and I wrote about my grief over losing my niece, but also about the silly, bubbly, happy way this story and its music made me feel. I still couldn't write my stories, but I was writing again, and it almost felt like I was myself.

I started following as many of the actors as I could find (even the side characters, who are also brilliant), plus Kenny Ortega (the director) on social media, hoping to see an announcement of a season 2. Because I wanted to live in this world of hope and joy and goodness forever. And I saw that Kenny had an Instagram Live event scheduled, where he would be talking to Madison Reyes (Julie), Owen Joyner (Alex), Jeremy Shada (Reggie), and Charlie Gillespie (Luke). So of course I watched it (even though I was technically supposed to be tech support on a webinar at the same time--shh! don't tell!--I was muted, so I could watch the interview on my phone while keeping an eye out for anyone who needed my help...)

This led me down a rabbit hole, searching out many more interviews with the cast. And these friendships and supportive relationships that seemed so effortless and real onscreen? That's because they actually feel this way about each other in real life! Hearing Owen, Jeremy, and Charlie literally gush over Madison's talent ... Listening to them all talk about the ways they encouraged each other ... Discovering that my favorite musical moments on the soundtrack (the song Perfect Harmony, the guitar solo in Edge of Great, the solos from each of the boys in Nothing to Lose) were all written by the band, with the full support and encouragement of Kenny Ortega... 

They were so genuinely kind to one another. Lifting each other up and shining the spotlight on each other's talent. But it wasn't just the 4 leads. Each of them was so excited to talk about and lift up the other members of the cast and crew. Giving full credit to anyone who had a hand in creating the magic, even when they could have easily taken credit for themselves. (For example, this interview, where Charlie explains that when he does the kiss thing in the scene where he's showing that he has chemistry with everyone he sings with... "Our prop guy, Calvin..." came up with the idea.)

In a world where I am overwhelmed by people fighting to put themselves first, even at the expense of someone else's life... this shining example of a whole group of people who genuinely care about other people is so refreshing.

It gave me hope.

Of course, Phil noticed how much time I was spending with this show. And I expected him to tease me about it, or maybe point out that an obsession this strong couldn't be helpful ... Instead, he laughed and said "maybe you need a ghost writer to help you get over your slump." AND THEN HE DREW ONE FOR ME!!! 

Ghost wearing a beanie and glasses hovers next to a table with a typewriter.

And that spark of hope, combined with an example of that kind of real-life support, was like a key that simultaneously tied everything together and unlocked the gates.

Everything that made this story relatable combined with the aspirational, inspirational, and motivational moments, and a glimmer of light began to grow until I felt like maybe I could be me again.

So the next day, I picked up my story pencils and turned to a fresh page in my notebook.

I didn't write any words on the page, but it didn't hurt to be in that space again. And I all of the bubbles and rainbows and butterflies fluttered so close I could almost touch them. 

Maybe tomorrow...

I put my notebook and my story pencils on my desk, where I would be able to find them easily when it came time to try again.

But those negative voices are persistent, y'all.

By the next morning, I realized that I was failing all over again. Sure, I held my pencil and my notebook without having a panic attack. But just holding them wouldn't put words on the paper. I had nothing. I was nothing. What was I thinking, smiling over something so insignificant? Besides, even if I did manage to write something, it probably wouldn't be any good. The books I wrote before were just flukes. I should just give up before I made a fool of myself again.

But then, I opened my Instagram, and the first thing on my feed was this video:

I watched this video 5 times through, then picked up my story pencil and my notebook.

Close-up of a notebook page with words written in pencil, and the pencil sits across the page, obscuring many of the words.
And I wrote SIX PAGES of content related to my young adult novel! They were pages of backstory that happened long before the "actual" story begins, but it helped me to flesh out some details on scenes that just weren't quite sticking right in the last revision I attempted before I stopped writing. 
Close-up of a different notebook page with words written in pencil, and the pencil sits across the page, obscuring many of the words.


And the next day, I completed a full draft of one of my picture books.

close-up of a word document with tracked changes displayed, and an overlay of a ghost with a beanie and glasses, hovering behind a table with a typewriter on it.

And the day after that, I revised and polished a picture book manuscript that needed some tweaking.

And the day after that, I gathered my courage (and watched the "we believe in you" video six more times) and hit "send" on a manuscript I had been promising to send to an editor for over a year (but kept talking myself out of sending, because what if they tell me I'm no good?)

I'm not going to lie and tell you that everything is all better, with nothing but sunshine and lollipops. Because this is real life. And real life doesn't work that way. Of course I still have my down days and my moments where the demon voices are way too strong. When it takes everything I have not to listen to them. 

I can't tell you that Julie and the Phantoms is a magical cure-all that will align the planets and bring everything together into perfect harmony. But it was the magic I needed at the moment I needed it. 

I believe that the Lord speaks to each of us in the language we are most prepared to hear at any given moment in time. For me, in this moment, when I was at my lowest point and even reading His word wasn't comforting me, He brought me hope in a way that uniquely spoke to my soul.

Because on top of all of the other amazing things I've mentioned about this show, the thing that hits hardest is the fact that three of the four main characters are GHOSTS. 

They are dead. 

They have no bodies.

They have passed their expiration dates.

They died just hours before the biggest performance of their lives and never got to realize their dreams.

They missed out, and the world moved on.

And yet...

Their music lives.

Their words still matter.

They still matter.

They have no bodies, but contrary to what Reggie says, they are not nobodies!

And that was a direct answer to my biggest fear. The giant wall that blocked my path and kept me from writing for way too long was the fear that I might die before I finished everything I was trying to do. 

But even if I die, I still matter. My words matter. My voice matters. My life matters.

I am not a nobody.

And that is what I needed to remember.

That is why I can finally be me again.

And that is why I will continue to watch this show on repeat for as long as I need it, until I am ready to stand tall on my own again. 

No regrets.

And if you are struggling with your own demon voices that tell you to give up, please don't listen to them! In case you need it, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255. Please don't wait, like I did. I promise, you are worth it. And the world is a better place because it has one of you in it.


Thank you Jeremy, Owen, Charlie, Madison, Kenny, Savannah, Booboo, Carlos, Cheyenne, Jadah, Sacha, Tori, and everyone connected to Julie and the Phantoms! You may be Phantoms to everyone else, but you are my angels, sent in a moment when I didn't even know how much I needed you. <3

Julie and the Phantoms gif -- Alex (Owen Joyner) wearing a pink suit asks: You guys think we could try that hug thing one more time?

And just in case you need another sweet reminder that you are not a nobody, here are two variations on the Maple Phantoms cookies that are not hollow (they have bodies). 

maple cookies with chocolate filling

Variation #1: 

Maple Chocolate Cookies

You will need:

Maple Phantoms Cookie Dough (1 batch)
2 large chocolate bars (broken into 1/2-inch pieces)

Make the cookie dough as directed above, but instead of a mini marshmallow, place a piece of your favorite chocolate in the center instead. 

Be sure to seal the dough well around the chocolate. If you leave spaces where the chocolate is poking out, it may ooze out all over the baking sheet.

Bake as directed above, and serve warm with a glass of milk, or cool completely on a wire rack, then store in an airtight container.


Variation #2 (for the more adventurous snacker): 

maple cookies with bacon filling

Maple Bacon Cookies

You will need:

Maple Phantoms Cookie Dough
approximately 1/2 pound hickory-smoked bacon

Make the cookie dough as directed above. Set aside.

You will want the bacon to be as crisp as possible, without burning or overcooking it, so patience is key in this step! 

Preheat a large skillet (cast iron is best, if you have it) on high heat for a minute or two, until it's hot enough that when you flick a few drops of water on the pan, they bubble up and sizzle away immediately. Then, turn the heat all the way to low and add the bacon. 

Cook the bacon, a few pieces at a time, on low heat until the fat renders out and the pieces are fully crisp. Watch carefully, especially in the last minute or so of cooking, as the bacon can go from not-quite-done to perfect to oh-no-you-burned-it! in just a few seconds. (Luckily, these cookies are sweet enough that if you burn the bacon just a little bit, they'll still be delicious!)

Carefully lift bacon out of the pan to a paper towel-lined plate to absorb some of the grease. Pour off the bacon fat remaining in the pan after each batch, so you won't end up with bacon swimming in grease by the end. You can save the bacon fat in a glass container in the fridge for other uses, like frying potatoes, later -- or if you know you won't use it later, just dispose of it in the trash (pour it into a glass bowl to cool for a bit before scraping it into the trash. Pouring hot grease directly into the trash can could melt and/or burn things, causing quite a mess!) -- Make sure you do NOT pour the bacon grease down the sink, as it will cause quite a nasty clogged drain when the fat cools and solidifies.

Break off a 1/2-inch piece of bacon and place it in the center of a cookie dough ball. 

Carefully and gently, pinch the dough up and around the bacon, then roll gently into balls, and bake as directed above. 

Remember, bacon is a perishable food! If you are not going to eat all of these cookies in one sitting, make sure to refrigerate any leftovers. (You can always rewarm them later for a few seconds in the microwave, if you desire.) Please do not forget this step! Tainted hot dogs might bring about adorable ghost bands, but tainted maple bacon cookies just aren't a good idea.

06 July 2020

KidLit Creatives On-Demand Virtual Courses

After years of promising that on-demand writing and marketing courses were "coming soon!" ... I'm finally pleased to announce that "soon" is here!
I have teamed up with author Annette Whipple to bring you the KidLit Creatives Write Now! virtual school.

Our experiences in publishing include picture books, chapter books, middle grade, young adult novels, children's magazines, educational materials, and marketing. We have taught kidlit creators of all ages through writing conferences, webinars, school visits, library presentations, consultations, and mentorship programs. I have personally taught workshops at SCBWI events and conferences in Maryland, New Jersey, and New Mexico, as well as webinars both for private groups and public audiences. I've had experience in presenting my own workshops at schools, libraries, and bookstores for writers and readers of all ages (from early pre-K through adult). I have coordinated the MD/VA/DE/DC/WV Read Local Challenge since 2015, coordinating events for authors and illustrators with schools, libraries, bookstores, festivals, and other literacy-minded organizations, and I was a PitchWars mentor for several years. Annette also has years of experience in teaching classes in-person and online.

From basic writing craft to marketing know-how, we’re here to help you find your unique voice as a kidlit creator, no matter where you are on your writing journey.

Some courses that are available now are:


Preparing Your Perfect Presentation (#1 in the "Selling Yourself, without selling yourself short" series)
You have something unique to offer the world that no one else can: YOU! Take this guided course to discover the intersection between the things you're passionate about, the things that come easily for you, and the things teachers and librarians are looking for in an author presentation in order to create a presentation that only you can give.

5 Tips for KidLit Writers **FREE Writing Class**
Whether you're just getting started or have several books published, these are our top tips for finding your own way in the publishing world!

Upcoming on-demand courses include #2 - #4 in the "Selling Yourself, without selling yourself short" series of courses:

  • Allow Yourself to Shine (in-person & online): Navigating author websites, social media, and putting your best face forward
  • Reaching Out to Schools & Libraries (& Bookstores!): They can't invite you to events if they don't know you're available!
  • Winning Author Presentations: Exploring in-person and virtual events, making meaningful connections, and keeping an audience engaged
Plus courses on writing, such as:
* How to Fracture a Fairy Tale (& other stories you know well)
* Write What You Know (it might be more than you thought!)
* and more!

To vote on which course I should teach next, please vote in my Twitter Poll!

Want to join us? Use the code VBKIDLITCREATIVES2020 for 10% off your first KidLit Creatives course from us! (discount available for any course in our catalog--including the full "Selling Yourself without selling yourself short" bundle of courses!)

24 June 2020

Family, Friends & Fireflies (plus a Recipe: Morir Soñando Cookies)

I just finished completely rebuilding my website (the first time I've ever coded an entire website without starting from a cheater template--Please take a look around, and let me know what you think!) and as I was going through the content to figure out what to keep, I seriously considered deleting this blog. After all, I haven't posted anything since 2017, and I know myself. I probably won't ever post regularly again. And everyone knows that an outdated blog isn't a good thing.

But then I started scrolling through my old posts, and I remembered how much I loved sharing bits of myself with you.

Yes, I have an "about me" page on my website. But to really know about me, you have to know about my  brain tumor. And the way I get unbelievably excited about little things. And my obsession with Crock Pot cuisine. And my absolute love of books, and all the ways they help me make sense of my world. And the way I can make a surprisingly delicious cookie out of literally everything.* 

And the way my friends and family are my entire world.

So here's a post to say I'm back! And in the spirit of all the things that this space is for me, I'm including all of the things that make me love being here.

A book:

Cover of GHOST SQUAD by Claribel Ortega

A few weeks ago, I finished reading GHOST SQUAD by Claribel Ortega, and it was amazing!
Shortly before Halloween, Lucely and her best friend, Syd, cast a spell that accidentally awakens malicious spirits, wreaking havoc throughout St. Augustine. Together, they must join forces with Syd's witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to fight the haunting head-on and reverse the curse to save the town and Lucely's firefly spirits before it's too late. 

This is a REALLY fun book with lots of laugh-out-loud moments, two best friends who are the absolute definition of "friendship goals," and an adorable cat that probably everyone who reads it wants to adopt in real life. But more than that, it's a book about family, both biological and the family we find along the way. And it's about those connections that last forever. Even beyond the grave. 

Lucely's fireflies felt so familiar to me in so many ways. I don't often get a chance to see and chat with my deceased ancestors, but I know they are there for me, lifting and helping me when I need their strength. Like when my Grandpa came to sit with me through my radiation treatments. And whether you believe in those beyond-the-grave connections or not, I think we can all agree that our families shape who we are and how we see the world. I'm so glad that I got to be a part of Lucely's world for a little while!

A connection (or two):

Claribel Ortega is one of the sweetest, fiercest human beings I have ever met. She is quite vocal in her support of her friends. She's not shy about standing up for what's right, even when I know it's really difficult for her to do sometimes. And she's really good at reminding me that I'm worthwhile. I count myself lucky that I got to know her before she was famous! (She reminds me a lot of Syd, Lucely's amazingly fierce, sweet, and funny best friend in GHOST SQUAD.) 

And I've been waiting to read this book since she mentioned it just briefly way back when we first met all those years ago. (I'm not even sure if she had started writing it yet, or if she was just still playing with the idea.) So of course I had to get a copy as soon as it was available. I dove into the story full of expectations. Which character would I love the most? Would I fall in love with Chunk, as so many of the lucky folks who got to read advance copies did? Would I identify with Lucely? Or Syd? (For the record, Tia Milagros is my favorite!) I didn't expect my favorite part of the book to happen in the first chapter. But when Lucely sat down to a breakfast that included pitchers of fresh juice and morir soñando, I literally squealed with delight!

I didn't grow up with the amazingness that is morir soñando on my breakfast table. I didn't know what it was until a few years ago, when Hermana Ward, one of the missionaries here in the Maryland Baltimore Mission back in 2016/17, and another one of my favorite humans, gave me a cookie challenge. "There's an amazing Dominican drink called morir soñando that literally translates as 'to die dreaming.' Can you make that drink in cookie form?"

Well, first I had to get to know the drink. And oh my goodness! Yum!! If you haven't had this on your tastebuds, you absolutely need to fix that situation now. 

Go ahead. 

I'll wait. 

See what I mean? It's fantabulous, isn't it???

So I knew the cookies representing the drink had to be flippin' phenomenal, or they would never live up to they hype. 

Most of the recipes I create are all about simplicity. For this one, I pulled out all the stops. It's a bit more complex, and definitely a special-occasion treat, but literally every single person who has ever tried these cookies has fallen in love with them. (One of my friends even asked if she could lick the plate when they were all eaten!)

So... in honor of two of the best humans I know, and one of my new favorite books, I present to you...

A recipe:

Morir Soñando Cookies

Orange Cookie 

1 c. butter
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
¾ c. thawed orange juice concentrate
2 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. orange extract (opt.)
¼ c. cornstarch
4 c. Bob’s Red Mill 1-to-1 GF flour

Cream butter and sugar together. 

Add eggs, orange juice, soda, salt, cornstarch, and orange extract, as desired. 

Beat until light and fluffy (approximately 5 minutes on high). 

Stir in flour, just until fully incorporated. 

Drop by teaspoon-sized scoops (I use a small cookie scoop to make sure they're all the same size, but you can just use a spoon, if you want) onto parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake 9-10 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Vanilla Buttercream

½ c. butter
½ tsp. vanilla
1 c. powdered sugar

Whip all ingredients together in a medium-sized mixing bowl, until light and fluffy. Frost cookies.

Orange Glaze

¾ c. thawed orange juice concentrate
¼ c. butter

Boil orange juice concentrate down to ¼ c. syrup.

Beat in butter (I use a rubber spatula and beat it in by hand, but you can use a mixer if you like). 

Chill slightly. (15-20 minutes--just enough so that it won't melt the frosting) Then, drizzle over frosted cookies. 

Serve right away, or place back on the parchment-lined cookie sheet and freeze for later. (I actually love these right out of the freezer. They're soft enough that they can be eaten frozen, and one of my friends described them as a "Creamsicle on Crack.")


So there you go. I'm back, and I'm excited to share a bit of myself with you all again. I've missed you. I've missed this. 


(*disclaimer: I haven't yet tried literally everything in my cookie-making adventures, because there are about a zillion ingredients in the world ... but I have managed to succeed so far in every challenge that I have been given. So I'm gonna claim that "literally" and wear it with pride.)

08 June 2017

Looking Beyond the Box: Believing Impossible Things (plus recipe: Sweet & Savory Sandwich Cookie)



Of the four cookies in Sister Sanborn’s Hogwarts house cookie challenge, the one that took the most mental energy to create was the Ravenclaw cookie. Which isn’t surprising, since Ravenclaw is known for intelligence, creativity, wit, wisdom, and originality. The cookie to represent the house of Thinkers had to be one that was a bit of a puzzle itself. Flavors that maybe shouldn’t work together, but do.

Some of the most rewarding challenges, in baking as well as in life, are those that encourage you to look at common things in a way you haven’t looked before. When we search outside the box, suddenly all kinds of things that shouldn’t be possible become reality.

One of my favorite passages in literature is this exchange between Alice and the White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:
   "I can't believe that!" said Alice.
   "Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
   Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
   "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Experimenting with out of the box flavor combinations, or alternate applications for common objects is a good way to practice believing impossible things. And believing in impossible things is the best way to turn the impossible into reality.

So when I took on this part of the challenge, I set out to deliberately “believe impossible things.” I started pulling out all of the savory spices from my pantry that I had never thought to use for cookies before, and then I began looking for those surprising combinations that might work. Obviously, the Ravenclaw cookie should have savory elements to please the palate in a puzzling way, but it had to be deliberate, not just a muddied mess of flavors.

I thought of the garlic ice cream that I tasted years ago at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. (Seriously, it was the best vanilla-based ice cream I’ve ever tasted – who knew garlic could pair so well with sweet foods??) But a simple garlic cookie didn’t seem right either. This cookie needed layers of complexity … and what better way to achieve layers than with a sandwich cookie? One that paired multiple flavors – flavors that worked together in smaller combinations (garlic and basil, garlic and lemon, lemon and vanilla …), but wouldn’t generally be found all at once.

So here it is: a sandwich cookie that combines two different, but complementary, slightly-savory cookies into one surprisingly sweet treat.

Sweet and Savory Sandwich Cookie

You will need:
1 Lemon Basil Cookie (see recipe below)
1 Garlic Chocolate Chip Cookie (see recipe below)
Vanilla Buttercream Icing (see recipe below)

Assemble the Ravenclaw Cookies:
Spread vanilla buttercream frosting on the bottom of one lemon basil cookie.
Press together with one garlic chocolate chip cookie.
Repeat until all of the cookies are paired into a batch of puzzling, yet utterly delicious sandwich cookies.

Lemon Basil Cookies
You will need:
1 c. butter
2 c. sugar
3 eggs
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 Tbsp dried basil
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. lemon extract
4 c. flour
(opt) 1 c. crasins*

Cream together butter and sugar.

Mix in eggs, baking powder, basil, salt, and lemon extract. Beat until light and fluffy.

Add flour, and mix thoroughly to combine.

Form into ½-inch balls, place on parchment-lined cookie sheet, and press flat slightly. Bake at 400 degrees for 8 minutes, until slightly golden brown around the edges.

Cool completely on wire cooling rack. Set aside to assemble Ravenclaw cookies.

*Variation: If baking as a stand-alone cookie (not part of the Ravenclaw sandwich cookie), you may wish to stir in 1 c. craisins before portioning the dough.


Garlic Chocolate Chip Cookies
You will need:
1 c. butter
2 c. sugar
3 eggs
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
4 c. flour
1 pkg. chocolate chips

Cream together butter and sugar.
Add eggs, baking powder, garlic, salt, and vanilla. Beat until light and fluffy.
Mix in flour, then stir in chocolate chips.
Form into ½-inch balls, place on parchment-lined baking sheet, and flatten slightly. Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 8 minutes, until edges are just lightly golden brown.
Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Set aside while you make the buttercream frosting.

Vanilla Buttercream Frosting 
If you don’t want to make your own, you can buy it from the store, but homemade is so easy to make and tastes so much better!
You will need:
½ c. butter (or margarine – but butter tastes better and holds up better in the frosting)
Approximately ½ powdered sugar (to taste)
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
Several drops blue food coloring (optional)

Cream butter.
Add powdered sugar. Mix in at lowest speed until fully incorporated, then beat until light and fluffy. (If the frosting is not sweet enough for your tastes, or you want it a little thicker, you can add more powdered sugar, ¼ cup at a time, until it is the desired consistency and sweetness.)
Mix in vanilla extract and food coloring.